The Great Wall and China’s historical introversion

All generalisations are suspect. Alexander Duma fils said, tongue in cheek, “All generalisations are dangerous, even this one.” Yet, we do have discourse on gross generalisations like “national character”. The dilemma is aptly condensed in the few words of Arthur Schopenhauer; “Every nation mocks at other nations, and all are right”. We have to go far back in history to ensure that our opinion of national character of another nation is not tainted by prejudice. Thus, using history as the source of light to illuminate national character, we shall look at a critical component of China’s national character; has China, as a nation, been historically introvert?

In the 4th century B.C., Aristotle succinctly put the cause and effect relationship between national character and the nature of government; “The various qualities of men are clearly the reason why there are various kinds of states and many forms of government.” When history shows that a nation, throughout its history had an undemocratic government, it speaks volumes about its national character. Democratic concepts are fruit of a universal tree, which has grown over millennia with roots in all continents. No single nation can claim its exclusive authorship, Magna Carta, The Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution notwithstanding. An inward looking nation, that designated all foreigners as barbarians over its entire history, is least likely to adopt democracy.

The superlative Great Wall of China, said to be the only man-made structure visible from the moon, is the quintessential symbol of China’s historical goal of “keeping out the barbarians and their ideas”. Sections of it were built in the 7th century B.C. and additions continued till 17th century Ming dynasty, showing an unbroken inward looking, self-righteous trait on record for 2400 years. When imperial China called itself the Middle Kingdom, it was an expression of their land being at the centre of the civilized world with increasing degree of barbarism as one receded from it. Within Beijing, the then Northern Capital, was the Forbidden City. Here resided the epitome of Chinese civilisation the Emperor, the Son of Heaven, Surrounding it was the zone of aristocrats, with the “less civilised” commoners at the periphery. Some may be tempted to conclude that the proletariat revolution would have ended such elitism. Yet, the national character fossilized over millennia is not diluted by political ideology. Mao did not attempt to discard the intimidating nomenclature of the Forbidden City nor was it destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Xi Jinping is the son of a Communist veteran and he gained leading positions in the party even when his father was purged and Xi was exiled during Cultural Revolution, rising to become Governor of Fujian in 1999. The present Prime Minister Li Keqiang is also the son of a senior party functionary. On 10th September this year, Xi’s peasants and workers Party celebrated six centuries of the Forbidden City. The Global Times, which speaks for the Party, gushed over the palace compound being born again.

The fabulous Ming emperors accentuated the isolationist policies confining contacts with foreigners to a few ports. When Britain granted East India Company the exclusive right to trade with China, the Qing dynasty restricted them to Canton (modern Guangzhou). The disdain for foreign barbarians and their culture continued into this last of the dynasties, the Qing. An exasperated British King George III sent an elaborate diplomatic mission to Qing emperor Qianlong (Ch’ien Lung), seeking more freedom of operations for the Company. The emissary was received with due pomp and there was an elaborate exchange of gifts, the British gifts including a “planetarium so complex that it took 18 days to assemble” dropping many jaws. The reply of the Emperor was, however, nothing like diplomatic or polite, reminding us of Xi Jinping’s “wolf warrior diplomacy”.

The Emperor noted the “respectful spirit of submission” of the British King but declined his request stating that all Europeans, including Britain’s “barbarian merchants” must trade with his “Celestial Empire” at Canton. He added that his empire “possesses all things in prolific abundance” and there was no need to import “the manufactures of outside barbarians”. To the obvious question as to why he permitted this trade at all, the emperor was condescending. Because Chinese tea, Silk and porcelain were absolute necessities for Europeans, he permitted the trade so that Britain’s wants may be supplied and the King’s country may participate in the Emperor’s beneficence. It was not mentioned that China got silver in exchange till Britain forced opium on them through the Opium Wars. He reminded the British monarch “the distinction between Chinese and barbarian is most strict”. The letter was rounded off with an ominous warning; “Do not say that you were not warned in due time! Tremblingly obey and show no negligence.” Chinese rulers have historically prohibited travel to the “Barbarian lands” without state approval, which was granted only for trade. The intrepid traveller, Xuanzang (Hiuen Tsang) was denied permission to visit India and he had to travel through China surreptitiously, hiding by day and travelling by night. To avoid checkpoints on the usual route, he had to traverse the merciless Gobi and Taklamakan deserts. In modern times, Lin Biao, Marshal of the People’s Republic of China, the architect of Mao’s victory in the civil war, Vice Premier, Vice Chairman, Minister for National Defence and designated successor of Mao, died in a plane crash in Mongolia as he was attempting to flee China with his family. There have been cases every year of attempted escape from this walled society, the latest being defection of the Chinese spy Wang Liqiang to Australia and of virologist Li-Meng Yan to the USA. On august 30, Taiwan coastguard rescued a boat carrying people fleeing Hong Kong. A week earlier, another such boatload of people trying to flee to Taiwan were intercepted and arrested by the Chinese navy in international waters.

It is true that people of all nations, big or small, democratic or otherwise, exhibit jingoism and self-righteousness to varying degrees. India too has its share of these traits. We all suffer from “otherness” based not only on race (which is not amenable to a scientific definition), but also based on language, food habits, hygiene and other lifestyle traits. All nations, during their history, have built forts and walls around their cities. Yet, nowhere, a wall enveloped the nation, physically and metaphorically, as it does in China. In no other nation, Xenophobia for the rest of the world has been so entrenched in state policy for so long as in China. No empire except China has been continuously explicit and rude in spewing disdain for other people, their rulers and their civilisation. In the next part of this article, we shall talk about this introversion being reflected in the communities, buildings and people of post-imperial China.
Source : Daily World

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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